Dear David Brooks: We’re All Nobodies, Doing Nothing——All Hail!

David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times December 17 that was, even for an occasionally sardonic humorist such as himself, unusually dyspeptic. In it, he skewered “Thought Leaders” who march through their self-important lives giving TED Talks, their “eyes blazing at the echo of the words ‘breakout session.’”

Brooks traced the development of such people back to their college application essays, when they likely wrote along the lines of: “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life.”

Later, the youth is “widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)”

This is funny stuff, classic Brooksian satire, but the column gets progressively more sour as he follows his mythical hero through the various compromises and unvarnished sell-outs of middle age, when “his life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga…His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.”

The “guilty” part of that pleasure comes from some small, still, but not-quite-silenced voice within that whispers: This fool, too, is a human being. What measure of respect does the fool that I am owe to him?

Twitterdom and the blogosphere, much of which from the left consider Brooks a loathsome conservative and from the right not purist conservative enough, were ablaze with ridicule, accompanied by speculation on exactly whose ox Brooks may have been goring: fellow columnists and “Thought Leaders” Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman? Newt Gingrich and his Band of Junior Bloviators?

Perhaps himself, taking sober stock of his own pretensions and comforts as an Important National Columnist and middle-aged multi-millionaire, freshly divorced from his wife of 27 years after implying in print none too long ago that a happy marriage was the be-all/end-all of the well-rounded life that was his?

Or, as one among dozens of alternately funny, clever, and cruel Tweeters brightly suggested, “The column was one written by a man scared younger writers he can’t quite understand are coming for his job. And we are.”


All right. What are we to make of this besides watching it lap back offshore and drift out with the ceaseless tides of New York media and culture criticism? Brooks doesn’t seem to be sparing himself and his cohorts as he projects his subject’s life ahead:

Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever.

Ah, the grating, creeping, foreboding fear that Thought Leaders, too, are Nobodies. All those carefully crafted columns, clever tweets and conference keynotes and preferred restaurant tables—all of it, in the end, adding up to Nothing By a Nobody. Could it be true?

Of course it is true. What portion of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” have we all forgotten in the red hot glare of the media age?

In and out goes the tide, sweeping up its million grains of sand to be deposited somewhere else, far out in the dark depths of the ocean floor.

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” Shakespeare told us. (I trust you noticed that I, being a fool, was at least wise enough to quote Shakespeare there, yes?)

I mostly feel a kind of guilty pleasure when reading snarky sendups of ridiculous people (ridiculous in their sense of self-importance, or entitlement, or narcissism, or sentiment, or self-righteousness).

The “guilty” part of that pleasure comes from some small, still, but not-quite-silenced voice within that whispers: This fool, too, is a human being. What measure of respect does the fool that I am owe to him?


My own religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism lists “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” as the first of its seven basic principles. Jesus instructs his followers to “Love your enemies,” Buddha to practice “universal compassion.”

If we deign to lead religiously oriented lives, how do we reconcile that with the delicious gut satisfactions to be had by snarkily dismantling the inconsistencies and hypocrisies and ultimate smallness of all—and I mean all—those around us?

Because it is true, you know. We are ridiculous, often weak fools who, if we are lucky, will lead long lives punctuated by failures and frustrations and pains too numerous even to remember by the time we reach their end. And unless our name is Obama or Jobs or Gandhi, we will be but a name on an ancestral roster just a few generations hence, unremembered, unacknowledged, unknown by all who then walk the earth.

Besides which, even if our name is Obama or Jobs or Gandhi, we will still be dead, wholly unable to glean even a scintilla of satisfaction from our name residing in whatever passes for books in the near future.

And beyond that is the dust of the vast interstellar spaces that preceded this earthly domain by billions of years and will outlive it by billions more, where no names or accomplishments or memory of anyone who ever lived will survive. The jostling for fame and importance and clever tweets and corner restaurant tables will not amount to one speck of that dust.

Which leaves us where, exactly? Striving, of course, foolishly, Quixote-like, because it is our duty and privilege, with all our will and might and occasionally snarky intelligence, to answer the poet Mary Oliver’s critical question:

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

It looks dark and vast and pretty lonely out there, but apparently, the music isn’t bad:

Appreciation to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Photo of David Brooks top of page courtesy of Vasudev (Vas) Bhandarkar, Mumbai, India, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Tides photo courtesy of Colin-47, Norwich, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Milky Way photo courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Lines from Mary Oliver poem The Summer Day, see entire poem at:

3 comments to Dear David Brooks: We’re All Nobodies, Doing Nothing——All Hail!

  • mary Graves  says:

    I agree with you that we need to be very cautious about following any thought leaders because no human thought leader can get beyond his humanness. Buckminster Fuller in his book Critical Path says the only way for humanity to continue on the planet is if we each think for ourselves. Herd mentality will end humanity, he believes. So, I agree about caution on thought leaders. Andrew, you always are so good at defining our weaknesses right on, but I want to ask one thing: Why can’ t humans be included in the 4 minute video. We see the beauty of a drop or water a blade of grass, what about one human being. To separate humans from the earth’s beauty in this video and blog seems hostile. It is a human who is reading the words of the blog, listening to the music, looking at the pictures. Do they all need to be excluded….punished for the actions of a few. The man who claimed to have a great marriage and then get divorced soon after, he is many of us. Sometimes right before a couple gets divorced they are trying one last time to make it work but it does not quite take. Does that make him dishonest and a hypocrite? Or does it make him wonderfully human like all of us and with beautiful aspects like every blade of grass and drop of water. Is it ok for God to love both humans and the earth? Does it have to be one over the other? Yes, people are small and they are also big. The one good thing about Twitter etc is that anyone can be a thought leader for a day or two. Buckminster Fuller tells us that in the end everyone must be their own thought leader. If we blindly follow anyone, we will be following one who you describe, one who tapers off in old age and lives the opposite of what he preached when he was younger. Leaves too are different when ready to fall off the tree. Are they hypocrites? Many people seem to want everyone else to stay the same, keep the same values forever, while we secretly change as we age. Thanks for writing the blog and for listening this far.

  • joan voight  says:

    I think the smarter “Thought Leaders” know it is all just show business. Doesn’t Brooks?
    Happy Holidays with your family and the “real” people Andrew.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Joan, I suspect Brooks does know punditry is at least a great deal show business, which accounts for his often bemused and satirical perspectives, even as he deals with serious matters. I think in this column, he was as much turning his satire on himself as outward, which perhaps accounts for his more biting tone as he contends with a difficult time in his life & career. And that’s where I will stop with my armchair psychologizing!

    Mary, thanks for your heart-felt response, most all of which I would be at a loss to disagree with. I would only quibble with characterizing the video as “hostile,” since it was just meant to match up with the concluding paragraphs’ emphasis that so much of what we consider “important”—including the desire to BECOME important—isn’t, when viewed from the infinite. Which led to Mary Oliver’s so very human-centered question about the meaning-making and life-creating we are charged with in the short time we’re here.

    I think Brooks is questioning and mocking the whole chattering class he is a part of, who then respond, perhaps predictably, by mocking him in turn—which rather proves his point, I’d say! I’ll bet he’s laughed about it already. My own intent, however, was neither to mock nor call him a hypocrite, but rather to point out where he was wrestling with that matter himself, stuck, as he is and we all are, with being a fallible human being. My stance on that fallibility is to practice compassion (accompanied by no small amount of humor) for the mess that we are, as a way of clearing the decks and opening the possibility for a meaningful, soul-satisfying response to Mary Oliver’s question. If my comments came across as disparaging Brooks for the real struggles he and everyone else involved in a long-term marriage faces, then I was not being clear enough, obviously. He can’t not be suffering greatly through this, no matter how famous and wealthy he has become. The Buddha and Jesus saw it all, so very clearly…

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